Judge Ben Saylor is frequently left breathless after walking up a flight of stairs.
"There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless."—DVD back cover
Beginning in the late 1950s, a group of French filmmakers began creating movies that challenged the conventional filmmaking standards of the era. Many of these filmmakers, such as François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, began as critics for the French publication Cahiers du cinéma. Although it was preceded by films such as Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais was not in the Cahiers gang, but his film was enormously influential) and Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Godard's 1959 (released in 1960) feature debut Breathless, for many, has come to embody the spirit of the French New Wave. Using fresh and innovative techniques, Godard's film waved goodbye to one era of filmmaking even as it brashly ushered in a new and exciting time for cinema. The Criterion Collection has given this watershed film the long overdue treatment it deserves with this expansive two-disc set.
Facts of the Case
Petty crook Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) shoots a policeman while trying to avoid capture for stealing a car. The subject of a tightening manhunt, Michel heads to Paris to reconnect with sometime lover Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American studying abroad and selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées. Michel wants Patricia to travel to Rome with him, but she is conflicted in her feelings for the pushy, loutish Michel. As the police close in and put pressure on Patricia, she is forced to make a decision—turn Michel in or flee with him and face the consequences.
Breathless is one of those films that everyone who claims to be serious about watching movies must see at least once in their lifetime, plain and simple. If you haven't seen it, stop reading this review, go out and rent or buy it and watch it. Right now.
Are you back? Okay, we'll move on. Many critics with far more talent than I have written about Breathless, and doubtless many more will continue to do so after I'm gone. I can only wonder how it must have felt for the critics of the time to sit in a darkened theater showing the film, bearing witness to cinematic history, courtesy of a critic-turned-filmmaker named Jean-Luc Godard. Has there been a film comparable to Breathless in our time? The only movie that immediately comes to mind for me is Pulp Fiction, which certainly made an impact, although not nearly on the level that Godard's film did. To me, Breathless is in a class all its own because it incorporates sensibilities from the American films Godard loved so much but also manages to completely subvert the mores of conventional filmmaking of the period.
There's lots to love about Breathless: the groundbreaking jump cuts (a technique used by Godard to cut down on the film's runtime); the jazzy score; the breaking of the fourth wall by stars Jean-Paul Belmondo (at the beginning of the film) and Jean Seberg (at the end); the long tracking shots (done with a wheelchair instead of a dolly, an idea Godard got from director Jean-Pierre Melville, who appears in the film as the author Parvulesco). The list could go on and on. Even when the action is confined to one place, as in the long middle section where Michel and Patricia talk in her cramped hotel room, the film is never anything short of exhilarating. Breathless is so engaging, its two leads so instantly iconic, that it's hard to believe this film was made nearly 50 years ago.
But rather than continue to gush about the film, let's talk about the real reason you're reading this: the DVD presentation itself. Well, Criterion has treated this masterpiece right with a pristine transfer that looks and sounds nearly perfect. On top of that, they have packed this double-disc set with special features. On the first disc are a French theatrical trailer and a collection of archival interviews with Godard (two separate ones), Belmondo, Seberg, and Melville. Recorded between 1960 and 1964, the interviews, which run a total of 27 minutes, are all interesting, although I would have liked a new Godard interview to see how his views on the film have evolved over the years (or haven't). Belmondo's interview has the actor discussing the process of making the film, his own background (He was an amateur boxer), and how he was cast as Michel. I didn't really like Seberg's interview; the person conducting it was awfully nosy, asking the actress questions about how she felt after appearing in consecutive flops for Otto Preminger (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse), and also about her recent divorce. Breathless is discussed, but overall, the interview is not as serious as Belmondo's, which I blame on the interviewer. This is all the more disheartening knowing that less than 20 years after the interview was conducted, Seberg would die a tragic death at age 40. Melville's segment is rather short but still interesting.
Disc Two starts off with a pair of interviews (in one segment) with Breathless cinematographer Raoul Coutard and assistant director Pierre Rissient. Running about 22 minutes, both men have interesting things to say about the process of making the film. Up next is an interview with documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back). Running about 10 minutes, the segment has Pennebaker discussing a statement Godard once made to the effect that Breathless is a documentary about Belmondo and Seberg. Following this is a pair of video essays. The first, "Jean Seberg," is by filmmaker and critic Mark Rappaport. In just 18 minutes, Rappaport provides a compelling but sad look at an actress who died far too soon. The second, "Breathless as Film Criticism," is by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, and runs about 11 minutes. In it, Rosenbaum provides fascinating cultural context to Godard's film, and even pointed out a reference to Sam Fuller's Forty Guns in Breathless that I had missed.
The most comprehensive feature on the disc, however is Chambre 12: Hôtel de Suède, a 78-minute documentary made for French television. This 1993 special, hosted by French television personality Claude Ventura, is a total exploration of the making of Breathless. Rather than go the dry talking-heads commentary route, Ventura turns the documentary into an experiential piece. He checks into the very hotel room where the famous sequence with Belmondo and Seberg was filmed. He has a brief telephone conversation with Godard at the beginning (and another at the end), who declines to discuss the film with him. The indefatigable Ventura goes forth, interviewing Coutard, Chabrol, Belmondo, actress Liliane David-Dreyfus (who played a small role in Breathless), among others. Shot in black-and-white and scored with the Breathless soundtrack, the feature is very engrossing and informative. Things that were touched on in other features on the disc are illuminated here, such as Godard's erratic shooting schedule, wherein he would film for only a few hours one day and then eight hours or more on another. The participants talk about how Godard would write the day's script pages over breakfast. It is also learned that Truffaut and Chabrol's names in the credits (Truffaut for writing the treatment, Chabrol as a "technical advisor") were mainly there to attract backers who might otherwise be skittish about investing in a film directed by a first-timer. The disc concludes with "Charlotte et son Jules," a 1959 Godard short starring Belmondo. Clocking in at around 12 minutes, it's slight but entertaining. The set also comes with a lengthy booklet containing several writings by Godard (including his scenario of the film) as well as an essay by film historian Dudley Andrew and Truffaut's treatment of the film.
For any film buffs worth their salt, getting this DVD is a no-brainer. The transfer is beautiful; the sound is great and the comprehensive collection of special features helps to enrich an already rewarding film.
Absolutely not guilty.
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• Archival interviews with Director Jean-Luc Godard and Actors Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville
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